Posts from March 2012.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest. Important: If you are thinking of playing this game on the PC (as opposed to on X-Box), please see my caveat at the end of the review.

In 2003 I began to hear rumors of a forthcoming video game based on Call of Cthulhu. My interest was piqued but my hopes were not high. I assumed that the game would be a routine first-person shooter, with the thinnest veneer of Lovecraft slapped on so as to justify the license. After all (thought I), how could a video game approximate the experience of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game?

That question soon became moot. In early 2004 I became a father, and my career as a gamer came to an end–at least for a spell.

I was, however, reminded of the game last month, as I continued research for the H. P. Lovefest. And I discovered, to my surprise, that Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth was not only released, but released to mostly positive reviews. Even more encouraging to me, though, were some of the negative comments made by gamers on Amazon and Metacritic. They accused the game of being overly linear; they lamented the long and unskippable cut-scenes used to provide voluminous expository information; and they railed against the ridiculously high difficulty level.

A frustratingly lethal game with a focus on narrative and a proclivity toward railroading players? This sounds like a better adaptation of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game than I’d expected!

And so, for the sake of the H. P Lovefest, I downloaded a copy of the game from Steam and played it all the way through. Oh, the things I do for you.

My fears that the game would be heavy on first-person shooting and light on Lovecraft were allayed immediately. Dark Corners opens in 1909 with the protagonist, Private Detective Jack Walters, venturing into the homestead of a strange religion called the Fellowship of the Yith. As Walters explores the house, searching for clues as to the purpose of the cult, he discovers paintings of the Great Old Ones upon the walls, finds the Pnakotic Manuscripts on an altar, and stumbles across some horrible Yithian technology in the basement. And, significantly, he does all this unarmed. Even from the get-go, the focus of the game is on investigation, stealth, and Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.

The main story, set six years after the prologue, keeps you in the role of Jack Walters, and deprives you of weapons for at least the first quarter of the game. Which is not to say that you lack opposition–far from it. After you travel to Innsmouth (yes, that Innsmouth) you are beset by enemies on all sides, and must survive by skulking in the shadows when possible, running like hell when necessary, and patching up your wounds with first aid kits when you can find a moment’s reprieve. The flight-not-fight tenor of the game is so emphasized that, even after you acquire a gun, you’ll tend to use it as a last resort rather than as a first.

The story of Dark Corners is impressive, on par in detail and faithfulness to Lovecraft with the best of the Call of Cthulhu scenarios. And it even incorporates CoC’s most interesting mechanism, the sanity attribute. When Walters encounters horrors, key aspects of the game change to reflect his mental distress: the video becomes blurry, or wavers in and out of focus; the audio warps and wafts; and the controls become unreliable. Too much terror in too short a time frame and Walters may well go insane–with deadly consequences.

The devotion of the Dark Corners writers to the source material–both Lovecraft’s stories (The Shadow Over Innsmouth foremost among them) and the CoC RPG–is immensely gratifying, and shines in every chapter. I actually played the game through twice: once on the regular level of difficulty, and a second time on the easiest level, so as to enjoy the story without being murdered every forty seconds.

And you will be. Murdered, that is. Often. Even I, a fan of the notoriously fatal role-playing game, found myself exasperated at times by the lethality of the game. There is, for instance, an scene about a third of the way though, in which you must escape from the Innsmouthian locals, that is inexcusably unforgiving. I am also going to side with many of the game’s critics in declaring the save points in the game to be way too few and far between. I understand the philosophical unpinning of this decision on the part of the game designers–preventing players from saving at will makes the game all the more scary–but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel like defenestrating my laptop on more than one occasion.

All that said, I enjoyed Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth as much as any game I have played recently, a list that includes the both the Halflife and the Portal series. As a Lovecraft aficionado I am obviously biased, but even so it does not surprise me that the game was included in this compendium of Best Games of All Time.

Dark Corners is as close of a Call of Cthulhu campaign as you’re going to get without five other people and some ten-sided dice, and it’s a loving tribute to the master of dread.

Huge Caveat for PC Gamers: Dark Corners was originally developed for the XBox and, as I understand it, the PC port was performed hastily, in the last days before Headfirst Productions went belly-up. As a result, the PC version has some bugs. Some are small and ignorable; others are large and obnoxious. One however, near the end of the story, literally renders the game unfinishable.

The bug doesn’t occur on all systems, but it occurred on mine and, I suspect, on most modern systems. It takes place on the ship, when you are asked to fire a cannon at Devil’s Reef. The reef is supposed to show blue lights to indicate your targets, but the bug prevents them from appearing, making this mini-game all but impossible to complete.

Here is the solution:

  1. Get to the point where you are supposed to shell Devil’s Reef, which takes place in the “A Dangerous Journey” chapter. Look through the viewfinder and, if the blue lights aren’t obvious, exit the game.
  2. Download this zip file.
  3. Unzip the file and copy the “A Dangerous Voyage 5-28-2011 6.11.26 PM” folder into “C:\Users\[yourusername]\Documents\Bethesda\Call of Cthulhu”
  4. Relaunch Dark Corners, choose “Load Game”, and select the “A Dangerous Voyage – 05/28/2011″ save slot.

A bug of this magnitude is clearly unacceptable, and I therefore cannot recommend the PC edition of this game (even though that’s what I played). But reviews of the XBox version make no mention of this glitch; that version is presumably unaffected by this and several other errors.

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Eulogies

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest.

I was not alone in observing the 75th anniversary of Lovecraft’s death on March 15, 2012. Here are some other commemorations:

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Numero Uno

Me: You taught yourself to play guitar?

A: In college. I wanted to impress girls.

Me: Ah. You had an ulterior motive.

A: Not really.

Me: But you learned guitar specifically to impress girls.

A: In college, “wanting to impress girls” is the primary motive for learning guitar. An example of an ulterior motive would be, “and I thought I’d enjoy playing guitar”.

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Yo, Gamer!

A couple of announcements for the gamers in the crowd.

Tabletop: Wil Wheaton, best known for his role as “Wil Wheaton” (The Internet, 1992-present), is launching a new web show called “Tabletop”, in which he sits around and plays board games with Felicia Day.

Dude is living the dream. Specifically, he is living my dream. Thaaaaaat doesn’t seem right.

Geekway 2 the West: My buddy Chris is one of the organizers of an upcoming gaming convention, Geekway 2 the West, which runs May 17-20 in St. Louis, Missouri. Take it away, Chris:

Geekway started 8 years ago as 22 people in one man’s basement, and last year we had 350 people for four days of pure boardgame bliss. We’ve always had the tradition of pouring back in every red cent we get into prizes, facilities, etc. Last year, we had some of our local woodcrafters make a crokinole board and raffled it off. It was such a huge success, that we’re doing the same, and donating all proceeds to Child’s Play.

Chris is good people, and someone with whom I routinely consult when looking into new games (either by pestering him in email, or by reading his reviews on Boardgame Geek). Full details on the convention are available on the Geekway 2 the West website, and you can follow @geekway on Twitter.

PAX: A speaking of Wil Wheaton and conventions and Child’s Play, I’ll remind folks about my absurdly long essay about the Penny Arcade Expo. And be aware that PAX East takes place in Boston just a few weeks from now, April 6-8. Seattle’s PAX Prime, meanwhile, is slated for Labor Day weekend, and I will absolutely be attending again.

Lovecraftian Gaming: Even though my article on Lovecraft ran in The Morning News last Thursday, and was originally intended to be the culmination of the the H. P. Lovefest, I will continue to post about the author and his legacy through Walpurgis Night, April 30th. In addition to my post on Arkham Horror, I will also be reviewing the board games Mansions of Madness and Elder Sign, the video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, and the Lovecraftian role-playing game–the other Lovecraftian role-playing game–Trail of Cthulhu. Sweeeet.

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Putting the I in Story

I worked as a customer service rep at Amazon in the late 90s, at the same time as Mike Daisey. I don’t think he and I ever interacted one-on-one, but I knew who he was, saw him around the ol’ cube farm, and received the emails he periodically sent to the department, alerting us to upcoming performances by his improv group.

After he left Amazon, Daisey created a one-man show called “21 Dog Years”, which documented his zany adventures with the company. A book soon followed, and I have harbored a petty grudge against him ever since. He had the initiative to do the thing we’d all fantasized about (i.e., turn our experience with Amazon into a book deal), and that made me resentful. You know how that goes (or don’t, and are a better person than I).

A lot of my coworkers saw “21 Dog Years”, and most enjoyed it. Some thought it was great. But the consensus was that it was “truthy” at best, a slurry of his actual experiences, exaggeration for comedic effect, some good stories he’d heard from others cast into the first person, and maybe a little bunkum.

In 2001 when he spoke about the show with the Seattle Weekly (which was on a weird anti-Amazon jihad at the time), the interview contained this exchange:

Seattle Weekly: How much did you really deal with Jeff, and have you heard anything from former co-workers about his reaction to the show?

Daisey: I saw Jeff all the time, almost every day.

I worked like 100 meters from Daisey, and saw Bezo maybe three times in as many years. Like I said: truthy.

In the context of an interview, “I saw Jeff all the time” is a lie, plain and simple. But if Daisey said the same thing on stage as part of “21 Dog Years”, I wouldn’t have objected. I guess I agree with Daisey when he says that the tools of theater are different than the tools of journalism.

And although I and others were irritated at some of the “facts” Daisey got wrong in “21 Dog Years”, it seemed okay that the monologue took liberties with the truth, even if he didn’t state as much. After all, no one thought that all of the workplace events recounted by David Sedaris in “Santaland Dairies” were literally true, and that story was everywhere. Heck, it had even appeared on everyone’s favorite radio show, “This American Life”.

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So where did Daisey go wrong with this whole Foxconn debacle?

For me, the key clue comes not from the This American Life Retraction episode (although there are plenty of damning moments in there), but from a February appearance Daisey made on “Real Time with Bill Maher”. It’s at the two minute, 35 seconds mark of this Youtube clip:

Daisey: People work on that line tirelessly, hour after hour until they drop. I met people who were–

Maher: Until they drop?

Daisey They drop. A worker at Foxconn died after working a 34 hour shift …

And here there’s the slightest of pauses, as if Daisey has reached the end of the statement. But then he adds, almost mechanically:

Daisey: .. while I was in China.

A worker did indeed die after a 34 hour shift. But the truth of this fact isn’t enough for Daisey; he has to then attach to it some connection, however tenuous, to himself. A Chinese man didn’t just die; he died while Daisey was in China.

Of course if Daisey wasn’t actually in China at the time of the death, his statement, as a whole, becomes false. And this is what appears to have happened with a lot of the “facts” of the Foxconn story, facts that were true until Daisey digitally inserted himself into the narrative. Foxconn has employed underage workers (true), but Daisey didn’t meet five of them on his first day. Workers were poisoned by n-Hexane (true), but Daisey didn’t meet them either. Someone Daisey spoke with had a “ruined hand” (true, according to the interpreter), but the man never worked at Foxconn (the company Daisey was specifically investigating). Even the lie that the Foxconn guards had guns is only interesting in juxtaposition to the picture of a rogue American in Hawaiian shirt, boldly striding toward the gates of the factory.

It’s tempting to ascribe this to a kind of megalomania on the part of Daisey, to speculate that he lives in a world where everything must ultimately be about him. But speaking as someone who has dabbled in storytelling a bit, I can tell you that there is another explanation.

The easiest way to make a story engaging is to personalize it, to say “this is something that happened to me”. Everyone knows this on some level. Urban legends happen to “a friend of a friend” because, just by adding that phrase, you have made the story twice as interesting as one that happened to someone to whom you have no link at all. And be honest: would you even have read this post if I hadn’t opened with my personal connection with Daisey?

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey says in the Retraction episode. Well, personalization is the ultimate shortcut from uninteresting fact to gripping yarn. It is like fairy dust for storytellers: you sprinkle it on your anecdotes, and they sparkle.

It’s a kind of magic, to borrow a phrase. And it is very, very seductive.

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One last observation.

The Retraction episode of This America Life is some of the most gripping radio I’ve ever heard. But you know what would have made it even more interesting? If Rob Schmitz, the reporter from Marketplace who ruthlessly grilled Daisey, had done so with Ira Glass as well. “You said that when Daisey didn’t provide contact info for his translator, you should have killed the show. And yet you didn’t. Why?”

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H. P. Lovecraft, Author, is Dead

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest.

On this, the 75th anniversary of H. P. Lovecraft’s death, I discuss the writer’s life and legacy in The Morning News

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Games: Arkham Horror

This post is part of the H. P. Lovefest.

There are countless board games that simulate D&D and similar “dungeon crawl” RPGs. They accomplish this by providing the components and rules necessary for the hack and slash element of the game: the movement through the labyrinth, encountering of monsters, the throwing of dice to resolve combat. The narrative aspects of the roleplaying game, meanwhile, are surgically removed, or reduced to an “Introductory Paragraph” to be read to the players before the action begins.

But how does one recreate the experience of Call of Cthulhu, a roleplaying game in which story is paramount? Arkham Horror does so by focusing on the aspects of CoC that make it unique: the teamwork (AH is a cooperative game), the escalating sense of doom, the “sanity” attribute, and, above all else, the plot arcs of the characters involved.


Pete the Drifter investigates the Black Cave

The board depicts Arkham, the fictional setting of many of Lovecraft’s stories, in the most functional manner possible, with locations such as “The Witch House” as circles with artwork, streets as colored rectangles, and the routes connecting the two as thick white lines. The background shows tract housing in an attempt to make things look a little more City-ish, but it’s clear that the board was designed to be pragmatic rather than aesthetic. The first time you see it you are likely to wonder how the game hopes to capture the spirit of Lovecraft with such a drab playing surface.

The answer, as in the roleplaying game on which Arkham Horror is based, is via story–a staggering amount of story of story. Flavor text is everywhere and, unlike most games of this sort, demands to be read. For starters, each player begins with a Investigator–Joe Diamond the private eye, Jenny Barnes the dilettante, etc.–and the back of each character card tells “The Story So Far”, describing how this unfortunate soul came to uncover those Things That Man Was Not Meant to Know. For example:

Sister Mary has served the Church faithfully for many years, so when she was sent to Arkham to work with Father Michael, a man whose writings she had admired for many years, she felt that she was truly blessed. Now, after witnessing Father Michael’s strange mood swings and seeing some of the bizarre practices that go on in this town, she’s beginning to feel that she may have been a bit too hasty …

Now, gathering her things and quietly leaving South Church, Sister Mary has decided to investigate this town, and in so doing, reaffirm her faith.


Sister Mary is one of 16 Arkham Horror Investigators

These characters move around the city of Arkham, investigating locations, collecting items, and unearthing clues. There is a separate stack of cards for each neighborhoods on the board, and when an Investigator visits a building–the Library in the Miskatonic neighborhood, say–a card from the corresponding deck is drawn. The text describes an encounter experienced by the character, and usually asks the player to perform a Check by rolling a number of dice and comparing the result to the Investigator’s relevant Skill: Fight, Sneak, Lore, Luck, and so on. Here again the mechanics of the Call of Cthulhu RPG are emulated, albeit in a simplified form.

Meanwhile, gates to Other Worlds open around town and unleash terrible creatures into the streets, while the power of some terrible god grows ever stronger. Players can close these gates, but only after traversing the bizarre dimensions to which they lead, and returning to town before irrevocable madness sets in. If too many gates are open concurrently, or if monsters completely overrun the town, or if any of a number of Apocalypse-triggering conditions are met, the Great Old One shows up for a climatic final battle. And as anyone who has played Call of Cthulhu can tell you, shooting Yog-Sothoth with a .45 rarely ends well.


Yes you can battle–and be devoured by-the Big Guy himself. It’s an honor.

There is more to the game–lots lots lots more–but you get the gist: from humble beginnings the Investigators uncover a terrible threat of mankind, and save the world in the nick of time … or suffer a fate worse than death in their failure. No game I own comes closer to recreating the feel of a RPG than Arkham Horror.

Now the caveats, of which there are many.

First, this is a Byzantine game, with a dizzying amount of stuff of which to keep track. On more than one occasion while playing Arkham Horror I have thought that this, the board game version of Call of Cthulhu, is more complex than the roleplaying game on which it is based.

Second, it takes a loooong time to play: three hours at a minimum, unless you are spectacularly (un)lucky. A corollary to this is that the game’s player rating of “2-8″ is universally acknowledged as BS: playing AH with more than four is ill-advised, unless you’ve set aside a week for the playing.

Third, AH is an very much an “experience” game; anyone who cares more about victory than enjoying the ride will wind up vexed and frustrated at the vagaries of fate. Don’t play with that person, they are a drag.

The Fantasy Flight version of Arkham Horror was released in 2005, but for some perverse reason I didn’t pick it up until last year. Once I did,though, it quickly became a favorite, and remains for me an ideal ways to while away an evening. If you are interested in playing, see if someone you know has the game and would be willing to teach it to you–there is no better way to learn. But even if you have to undertake the Herculean task of decoding the rulebook, your investment will pay you back with interest. For fans of Lovecraft, Arkham Horror is a game for the ages, and the strange aeons therein.

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Twitter Tuesday


You can always tell when I’ve done something clever. Please. Tell anyone who will listen.
@matthewbaldwin
Matthew Baldwin


I traced my disinterest in genealogy all the way back to my parents.
@matthewbaldwin
Matthew Baldwin


Where many Republicans want to return to the 50s, Santorum pines for the Precambrian Era when everyone reproduced asexually.
@matthewbaldwin
Matthew Baldwin


I accidentally asked a woman who wasn’t pregnant if she was but recovered by asking if she wanted to be and raising an eyebrow.
@matthewbaldwin
Matthew Baldwin


I hate it when people say I was “granted” immortality, like someone just handed it to me. I drank a lot of blood!
@matthewbaldwin
Matthew Baldwin


Buying “medium” cheddar instead of mild or sharp is kind of my entire life philosophy.
@matthewbaldwin
Matthew Baldwin


“Let’s kick out the jams!” — racist Preserves Club
@matthewbaldwin
Matthew Baldwin


An easy way to eliminate carbs from your diet is to live a joyless existence.
@matthewbaldwin
Matthew Baldwin


Ugh, I hate the dentist–all they do is lecture you. Brush your teeth! Floss your teeth! Stop doing meth! Wear some pants!
@matthewbaldwin
Matthew Baldwin


Ouroboros is so full of himself.
@matthewbaldwin
Matthew Baldwin

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Grabbag O’ Updates

Risk: Legacy (no spoilers): We have now played seven games of Risk: Legacy, and our interest in the game has yet to flag. As I mentioned in my initial review, our first session ended with new rules and cards coming into play, inspiring us to reconvene the following Sunday and continue our campaign. Yet more goodies were unveiled during the second session, but scheduling conflicts prevented us from gathering a third time until yesterday evening.

Last night we played two more games and, in the middle of the second, the most significant change yet was introduced, a literal “gamechanger” that goosed our enthusiasm for one more session at least. I was dubious that we would complete the full 15-game arc, but with the eighth and ninth installments approaching and yet more stuff in the box to discover, my skepticism on this point is waning.

It’s still Risk, for good or ill. But at the very least you you gotta acknowledge the skill with which they seeded the game with hooks to keep the players engrossed.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch: My atrophied pinky fell off as prophesied, but the good folks at OSI stepped in and replaced it with a bionic prosthetic.

I am still getting the hang of it, and have thus far broken the hands of three people while consummating pinky swears. Also I guess I have to fight Bigfoot? That sounds like bullshit but whatever.

Return of the Elder Gods: The H. P. Lovefest resumes tomorrow with a review of Arkham Horror.

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